This question has caused me a fair bit of consternation over my lifetime of filling out applications. It’s not really because I believe I’m disabled, but rather because of how others perceive disabilities in the first place.
If you’ve only seen my face in the square photo below this post, you probably don’t know I have ectrodactyly. I was born with three fingers on each hand, though my hands are not identical.
Figuring out which hand to use for certain tasks has always been a challenge. There are tasks where I am left-hand dominant and tasks where I am right-hand dominant, and it’s not always consistent. For instance, I write right-handed but eat left-handed.
I’m missing joints in my left hand, which prevents me from holding things like pencils or gripping small objects with precision. My pinky and middle finger (or whatever it actually is, I’ve never really classified it), stick, fused together in the shape of an L.
However, my right arm lacks full range of motion, which means the rotation of a fork from plate to mouth is far more difficult and the rolling of something like a bowling ball is incredibly difficult.
Growing up, I rejected the idea I was disabled. I hated when people tried to intervene and help me with tasks I was fully capable of doing. I hated when people “complimented” me, telling me “good job” whenever I did something ordinary. I’m still bothered, even now as a twenty-four-year-old, when this happens.
So why does checking “no” on the disability box on applications make me pause?
The first is the perception of what a disability is. I think many of us, myself included, struggle when we’re brought face-to-face with someone who has a disability. Whether it be a mental or physical condition, unless we know someone else with their condition, it’s difficult to know how to respond.
I have a very clear physical distinction from other people. It is very hard to not notice. I’ve had grown adults jump when they’ve seen my hands. I’m not surprised the automatic assumption is that I do have a disability.
It’s not like I’ve been able to do everything seamlessly, either. From the smallest of limitations, like the fact that my typing speed potential is simply capped lower than it would be if I had five fingers on even one hand (this has been a recent disappointment of mine) to more inconvenient ones, like the inability to tie knots (except for one particular type that has allowed me to tie my own shoes for the past twelve years).
One concern I have when deliberating whether I should just click “yes” (whether I exaggerate the effects or not is something I regularly debate), is that prospective employers will believe I have a disability. By clicking “yes,” I brace them for the reality that I do have something that is physically different.
These limitations, however, are all nearly negligible in everyday life. It hardly feels fair to check “yes” on a question that I don’t personally believe applies to me. Shouldn’t this response be reserved for people who actually have a disability?
But this leads me to the second reason: am I actually of those people? For two-and-a-half decades, I have adamantly rejected the idea that I am. I have found it insulting whenever people assumed that I have one. I have tried to be as “normal” as possible.
I’ve tried my best to not allow my hands to interfere with “normal” activities. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t tie my shoes until I was twelve and struggled with buttons (sometimes even to this day). I wasn’t going to be held back.
And yet, it might be this mindset that has me wrestling with the disability question today. I’ve spent so much of my life not wanting to be one of those people that I haven’t really taken the time to consider that maybe I am and that it’s not a bad thing.
Disabilities are a wide spectrum, I understand. However, the stigmatization that has led people with disabilities to be seen as less human has been something I wanted to avoid.
The offense I’ve taken to people asking, “what’s it like?” or “how do you do it?” is because it has implied disability—and shock that I am able to manage with the hands I have.
But I shouldn’t take it so harshly. If someone like me has such a limited scope of what “disability” even means—someone who has been perceived to have one—then I can’t expect people who haven’t encountered disabilities to have a more nuanced understanding.
I’ll still check “no” for now (and probably forever), but I will take it as a reminder to constantly refine my perceptions of what disabilities actually are.
Mitchell Barbee graduated from Calvin University with a B.A. in writing in 2021. Originally from Boone, North Carolina, he is currently residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He enjoys hanging out with the few friends who stayed, wearing grey hoodies, and hoping that he doesn’t get sucked into the nightly wormhole of watching a baseball game.
I appreciate your reflections here, and the excellent surprise at the end of the “Shape of an L” hyperlink. It always feels odd to classify oneself, especially in the nuance-free territory of a checked box.